Occasionally, science communication comes down to the “yuck” factor. Humans have a visceral reaction to things we perceive as unclean. This knee-jerk response can be a lifesaver – making us throw out smelly, rotten food, for example. But it is also a type of irrational response, that can interfere when scientists and technologists try to implement rational solutions to problems.
Case in point: water recycling. All water, in truth, is recycled. The bottle of Evian you’re drinking contains molecules from the sweat of every person that ever lived (including your parents, in that moment).
The water pouring out of your tap got treated by your local utility, but it may have come out of the river – downstream from where another city treats and discharges sewage. Likewise, direct potable reuse of wastewater is safe if proper precautions are taken.
Coca-Cola has been exploring numerous strategies for water conservation and re-use, as the company’s North American water resource manager Jonathan Radtke outlined for attendees at the North Texas Water Symposium. The company harvests rainwater for use in cooling towers, reclaims water for landscaping and runs process water through multiple treatment steps – including biological, reverse osmosis and UV – so it can then be used for cleaning equipment.
But, Radtke says,
We stop short of putting it in the product, and the reason is public perception.
I don’t think the public is quite ready to drink Coca-Cola made with wastewater.
It’s up to you all to change the acceptance of that.”
The truth is, while we drink recycled water all day long, our inbuilt squeamishness is the main obstacle stopping us from taking that process to its logical conclusion. And this gut reaction (pardon the pun) has consequences: it’s halted several water recycling projects in California, which is now suffering from a prolonged drought. Charles W. Schmidt says it also plays a role in the GM food debate, and (citing Göteberg University’s Åsa Löfgren) even carbon trading.
There’s a lesson here not just for corporations, but for science communicators as well. The “yuck” factor is just one of many irrational human responses that make it difficult for the public to judge science and technology based on their merits.